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Criminal Justice

Great news! A very public about-face in potentially remedying our arcane and absurd mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

From NYT: Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 in Crack Cocaine Cases

It was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most will be released in 120 days. The commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s efforts to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what it has portrayed as inequality in the justice system.

In a statement, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

esteban

Damian Esteban was just another thirtysomething hipster-looking teacher at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design until he got called in for jury duty last fall… and was arrested for allegedly bringing 20 vials of heroin in a cigarette pack into the courthouse with him.

The misdemeanor criminal charges against Esteban were eventually dropped when he attended a one-day (one-day?!?) rehab program. But the damage had been done: he was fired from his teaching job as a result of the arrest and ensuing publicity.

Fast forward to this week, when Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez ordered the NYC Department of Education to take Esteban back (or at least, overturned the DoE’s previous decision, I’m not clear which). Judge Medez stated that the firing was “unduly harsh… [and] excessive and shocking to this court’s sense of fairness.”

According to the New York Observer, Mayor Bloomberg was “not amused” by the court’s decision.

“We could not disagree more strongly with the judge’s decision to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling terminating a teacher for possessing 20 bags of heroin,” the mayor said in a statement this afternoon.

“The judge ruled that the termination ‘shocks the conscience,’ which shows a callous indifference to the well-being of our students,” he added. “That truly shocks the conscience and boggles the mind.”

What do you think? Should drug offenders (in this case, ones who haven’t been convicted of a crime) be allowed to teach children? And if not, does that mean we should institute random drug testing for schoolteachers — or do you think Esteban shouldn’t get his job back because of the sheer publicity of the case alone?

The Petit home was the scene of absolute brutality at the hands of two men.

The Petits were at home when they were subjected to unimaginable brutality and terror at the hands of two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Here’s a tip: if by some chance you find yourself home alone (my 13-month-old son doesn’t really count because he’s no protection at all) on a dark and stormy night, do NOT, under any circumstances, watch the HBO documentary “The Cheshire Murders,” which chronicles the horrific and almost inexplicable 2007 home invasion that killed three members of a beautiful family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Despite being a bona fide connoisseur of the true-crime documentary genre (surely, having watched every single episode of 48 Hours Mystery and Forensic Files qualifies me as such), and considering myself somewhat embarrassingly jaded about criminals and senseless criminal activity, I can say that the depiction of convicted murderers and all-around thugs Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes haunted and tormented me all night long, and now well into the following morning. I almost had to sleep with the lights on.

As is the fashion these days, this is a documentary with a point of view. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner want to tell us that the Cheshire Police royally screwed up. They got the 911 call from the teller at the bank where Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw money about an hour before the house ended up engulfed in flames. They arrived at the Petit home a full half-hour before the fire started, and apparently just sat around in their squad cars scoping the place out and, I don’t know, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, while Ms. Hawke-Petit was getting raped, strangled, and the girls were getting gasoline poured on them and were subsequently being burned alive.

And yes, the fact that the Cheshire Town Manager went on television shortly after the murders applauding the “courageous” efforts of the “rescue” team will make you want to claw his eyes out. As Hawke-Petit’s sister rightly points out, how much worse could it have gotten? The most heinous possible outcome was borne out. And is it really considered intrepid police work to “get the guys” when they’re right in front of your face, fleeing a burning home?

Needless to say, the Cheshire Police did not make anyone available to interview for this documentary.

The film also makes a pointed comment about the futility of the death penalty. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, is depicted as tragically misguided as he advocates for death sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes in order to exact a real sense of “justice.” (He’s not the only one — nearly every family member of both the victims and the murderers would like to see them dead.) But reality complicates any illusions of cut-and-dry justice. We learn that Hayes, at least, already wants to die. Automatic appeals will mean the case gets dragged out in perpetuity. And really, isn’t life in near-solitary confinement far worse than an early exit?

Anyway, for me, the most arresting part of this film was the depiction of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, whom the filmmakers handled thoroughly and clinically — so unlike many other true-crime docs, where we never get to hear from the perpetrators’ families or hear their histories. Which is not to say that the depiction was sympathetic: though both men were sexually abused as children, we are made to understand that each was probably pathologically evil. After meeting in a halfway house while out on parole, Hayes and Komisarjevsky hatched this vicious plan in what was basically the inevitable conclusion to their life of brutality and almost complete amorality.

This was not a “home invasion gone wrong.” It was a mass torture-murder that will stun you with its deliberate viciousness and the hideous intentionality of its two perpetrators. Though both men had only ever been arrested for burglaries previously, it surprised no one, least of all their families, that they were capable of such depraved actions. These men were thugs through and through.

For Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, life was indeed ugly and brutal. The fact that they inflicted their sense of the world on the innocent Petit family, though, is an unimaginable tragedy — the kind that “justice” could probably never even attempt to remedy.

lost girls

Yesterday I started reading Robert Kolker’s new book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. It’s a meticulously researched and truly engrossing look at the lives of four women who ended up murdered as a result of their work as Craigslist prostitutes. But more than that, it’s an account of their lives and what might have led them to such dangerous and ultimately fatal circumstances.

This is from Nina Burleigh’s review of the book for the New York Observer:

Theirs were the brutish lives of Americans born into the misery of economically and spiritually gutted small-town mid-Atlantic America. Their own mothers scraped and struggled to get by, working at Sears, casinos, Dunkin’ Donuts, motels. Fathers were absent. Grandparents, neighbors, foster parents stepped in to fill the care gap.

They suffered from domestic chaos, emotional problems, childhood abuse, unplanned pregnancies, bad boyfriends. The hallmark of their brief adult lives was the relentless pressure to bring in money to keep a roof over their own heads and the tiny heads of the babies they produced long before they were ready.

Each of them found a way to a modicum of financial stability through Craigslist, becoming “providers,” in john-speak—selling sex to make ends meet.

This is a car-crash of a story, but the most disturbing aspect is the way authorities couldn’t have cared less about these women. The inescapable impression one takes away from Lost Girls is that police rank Craigslist prostitutes somewhere below lost dogs.

fresnoYou should read this terrifying article, “Freefall Into Madness: The Fresno County Jail’s Barbaric Treatment of the Mentally Ill”  by Fresno State journalism students Sam LoProto, Damian Marquez, Angel Moreno, Jacob Rayburn, Brianna Vaccari, Liana Whitehead, and Prof. Mark Arax.

Or don’t. Did I mention it’s terrifying?

Travis Fendley, a 23-year-old schizophrenic with a history of violence, was well known inside the Fresno County Jail. Since 2010, he was incarcerated there four times. His family said they pleaded on several occasions with county nurses and jailers that he needed the same anti-psychotic medication prescribed by outside doctors or he was going to hurt himself or someone else. Denied those medications each time behind bars, his family says, he twice tried to kill himself, once by attempting to drown himself with cups of water and then by slitting his throat.

Which brings me to the second excellent (though equally terrifying) article I read today: Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, “In the Crosshairs,” about the plight of returning veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. — specifically, the tragic consequences that resulted from the Dallas V.A. hospital’s shameful, criminal neglect of one vet in particular, Eddie Ray Routh, who went on to assassinate former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in Texas earlier this year.

brooklyn

I’m pretty excited to watch CBS’s new six-part series, “Brooklyn D.A.” It starts tonight at 10pm.

Maybe I’m just naive about the potential for artifice in reality television, but any opportunity for regular people to see the inner workings of our judicial system seems like a good thing.

Here’s an excerpt from today’s Neil Genzlinger’s NYT review of the series. It’s pretty positive overall, but he did quibble with the series’ overwrought portrayal of what it deems “Brooklyn-ness.” (Personally, I’m not sure that that would interfere with the show’s accuracy or insight into the criminal justice system, but critics will be critics.)

Apart from the guessing game over whether it is or isn’t a news program, the most annoying thing about “Brooklyn DA” is the way it flaunts its Brooklyn-ness. Television that ventures into that borough or, for that matter, other boroughs has created a series of clichés, all of which are in evidence here.

There must be rap music over a collage that name-checks the borough’s neighborhoods. There must be a visit to blocks that were once dangerous but now are too expensive to live on. There must be a stop at a deli or food cart where the guy behind the counter is an oracle. Here, the episode opens with that scene as an assistant district attorney buys corned beef and asks the guy wrapping it up for advice on his coming meeting with his boss.

“Just go for it,” is the profound wisdom dispensed along with the meat. In trendy, eclectic, overexposed Brooklyn as packaged for TV, even the sagacity has turned trite.

On a related note, I’m pretty impressed by the way CBS has been returning to its documentary roots. As you may or may not recall, the original 48 Hours premiered in 1986 with the gripping, Bernard Goldberg-helmed, “48 Hours on Crack Street,” and followed that up with several pretty good real-time feature docs on crime in America. Only in the past fifteen years or so did it evolve into frothier (i.e., ratings-driven) fare, changing its name to 48 Hours Mystery, the true-crime show that spawned a thousand imitators. (I’m looking at you, Dateline!)

But this season, 48 Hours seems to be returning to its newsier roots. They’ve axed the “Mystery” from the title, and are focusing on more issue-based topics, such as correspondent Maureen Maher’s piece a few weeks ago on gang and drug-related violence in Chicago.

Keep up the good work, CBS. And if you’re reading this, your 48 Hours iPad app — which, for a small yearly subscription fee, gives true-crime fanatics like me access to the entire archive of episodes — is far and away the best television app I’ve ever used.

verdictThe New York Times continued its uncharacteristic coverage of the Jodi Arias trial today with an interesting piece by Fernanda Santos on the emotional difficulty jurors face in deciding whether to sentence someone to the death penalty.

Santos quotes a former Florida juror named Alison Ward on the admittedly “bizarre” phenomenon of imposing a death sentence on someone who is being punished for… putting someone to death (i.e., murder).

“Reality is nothing like you see on TV,” Ms. Ward said, describing the experience of serving on the jury, which agreed on a death penalty sentence, as a lonely, painful quest to decide whether to impose what she called “a measure of justice that is bizarre” — a death as a sentence for a killing.

Yes, it is bizarre, but just look at the bloodthirsty crowds who gathered at the Maricopa County Courthouse to hear the verdict (see NYT photo above) — many of whom would doubtless insist that the gruesome first-degree murder of Travis Alexander merits capital punishment for the now-convicted Arias. Perhaps they gleaned this lynch-mob mentality from watching HLN, where indignant anchors like Nancy Grace served as jury, judge, and executioner long before the verdict was read on May 8.

Yesterday, the trial hit another snag during its first day of the aggravation phase; court was abruptly cancelled until Wednesday of next week and no explanation was given. Meanwhile, Arias was placed on suicide watch and is currently undergoing some sort of psychiatric evaluation.